In May, we caught up with Michelle Garnaut, the founder of the M Restaurant Group, at M on the Bund in Shanghai to learn about their dedication to literature and creative writing.

China Residencies: How did the M Literary Residency start?

Michelle Garnaut: When we opened at the end of the 1990s, we did lots of different events. Among them, poetry readings, book talks, food-related talks and we had a space in the back (where Glam is now), which we gave to artists and galleries to display their works. All of that received really positive feedback from the community and is something we are still very committed to doing. Glam is still home to all of our M Talks—topics range from food, books, music, art, architecture, China and more—and we try to have at least 3 talks each month. Those initial events soon led the way to the Shanghai International Literary Festival, which we launched in 2003 (our next cycle is March 10-22, 2017 in case you’re around!) and later brought to Beijing with the Capital Literary Festival in 2011. Once we had established the Festivals, I had the opportunity to dine with an Australian writer, Gail Jones— she teaches, she writes, she was also a painter — and she said to me: “It’s really difficult to find time and space to write, it’s not that writers really need a lot of money, what they really need is time, space and opportunities”. And that conversation is what made me think very seriously about providing that in the form of the M Literary Residency.

CR: How did you decide on Shanghai and India as locations for the Residency?

MG: Well Shanghai was of course obvious; it was a natural extension of all we wanted to do in the literary world. As for India… I'd become friends with Pankaj Mishra, a prominent Indian writer. We’d been talking for a while about residencies and he had always wanted to start a program in India, so we decided to join forces. He originally offered his own house in Mashobra, a delightful town near Shimla in the Himalayas, but that didn’t work because no one there spoke English and the electricity had a tendency to cut out. It's also quite isolated, so things would have been a bit difficult there. What people need is support and people on the ground who are able to assist them when they need it. I think many of them also appreciate having access to a writer’s community around them, which wouldn’t have been possible there. After deciding that Mashobra was no longer an option, we finally decided on Sangham House, a dance commune spread out over 11 acres near Bangalore, India. They’ve got space for up to 12 accommodations and it’s all very simple, but very lovely. The person who founded it is a bit of a guru, and they do a lot of interdisciplinary work as well as workshops with DW Gibson, who runs Ledig House. But we’ve actually just changed the format of the Residency for this cycle and have moved it from India to China. We now offer one spot in Beijing and one in Shanghai. We have kept the length to 6-8 weeks and have just opened the 2017-2018 cycle. The application window closes on January 2nd, 2017 and our winners will be announced at the Literary Festival on March 10, 2017.

CR: What kind of writing does the residency support, and how long do the writers come for?

MG: We have a few unwavering rules: the submissions must be in English (or have English translations), the writer must be over 21 years old and it must be completely anonymous. If your name appears anywhere in the submission, it’s automatically disqualified. I don’t want people reading the applications to be swayed by how well known someone is, or who they’ve studied under. Otherwise, we are really very open to any kind of writing, whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays or dramatic prose, and have no restrictions on nationality.

CR: What kinds of writers have you had in the past?

MG: We’ve had some really fantastic writers come through who’ve been quite prolific. We’ve had something like ten books published between fourteen writers that have been a direct result of people being either in Shanghai or India for three months, simply writing. Our first resident was Malaysian-Chinese writer, Tash Aw, whose book Five Star Billionaire was long-listed for the Man Booker in 2013 and is currently being made into a movie. A lot of it is set in Embankment House, which is where Tash lived for the residency. We’re also really excited for our 2013 resident, Madeleine Thien, whose book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. We had Eleanor Goodman earlier this year in Shanghai. She’s a poet and translator and her poetry book, Nine Dragon Island, just came out. Our latest resident was Chinese-American Gracie Ming Jen who was with us from May through August working on a novel. The next, and final resident in India, is MaximLoskutoff who will be starting his stay this month.

CR: Why did you decide to move away from India?

MG: For a few reasons: firstly, our three restaurants (Capital M in Beijing & M on the Bund and Glam in Shanghai) are all based in China, so it makes sense for us to concentrate on the region. We found a great residency apartment on Beijing University’s campus and decided that it would be more hands-on and we would be able to provide a much larger support system. The India Residency took place in a very rural area outside of Bangalore and we’ve found that other than the finished work at the end of a resident’s cycle, we had practically no interaction with the writer. So in many ways, it was about becoming closer and more involved with the whole process. And finally, Sangam House had just started out when we launched, they really needed the financial support, but now they're well established and well on their way. One of our former residents is now in charge of the whole programme, so no doubt we’ll be kept abreast of their work and will hopefully support them in other ways.

CR: How does the selection process work right now?

MG: We have around 50 people who read submissions. They each choose their favourite piece and from those selections we create a shortlist. From that shortlist, we have a core group of readers who read the selected submissions once more and then we meet to discuss whom the winner should be.

CR: Where do the artists stay?

MG: A friend has a studio apartment on the top floor of a fantastic Shanghai building, Embankment House, not far from M on the Bund in Shanghai, and we rent it from her. The building is really something; it’s got so much character and so much life. Everyone who’s stayed there has written about it, it’s such a special place. It’s got a history: it was originally built by the Sassoon Family as one of the most luxurious apartment buildings in the 1930s, but soon became housing for Jewish refugees during World War II and has gone through countless transformations since then. Now it’s a relic full of old people who do their morning aerobics, sometimes the water goes off…it can be madness! But it's certainly never dull and gives writers a glimpse of real life in Shanghai.

CR: It sounds very China.

MG: Yes, it is! And in a way, so many places here now are so anodyne and sterile, they could be anywhere. This is truly being in the thick of it. And then the apartment in Beijing will be on the university campus, which will give it a completely different vibe. One probably ideal for writing and living since it’s a beautiful part of the city…one where you can catch your breath after venturing into the bustling city. The winners of the next cycle (2017-2018) will be the first to stay in the Beijing apartment, so we hope that they enjoy it as much as the past residents have.

OPEN CALL :: The M Literary Residency is open from October 10, 2016 until January 2, 2017. The winners will be announced on March 10, 2017 at the Shanghai International Literary Festival. To apply, please submit your application online.

This interview was conducted in Shanghai by Kira Simon-Kennedy on May 14 2016 for China Residencies.